So many adventures! Horribly unfortunately I cannot put up the photographs of all that I am about to write, as we found the internet unexpectedly in this little village, and I hadn't downloaded the photographs before we arrived, so apologies and I promise to provide pictures the next time.
The day before Ramadan finished we found ourselves in the little town of Foulm el Hissan, where we entered the village to buy supplies. On our way out a young girl (16), Aicha, befriended us, and invited us back to the house to eat the traditional post-fast breakfast of Ramadan (served normally after the evening meuzzin cry, about 6pm). She was lovely, and later that day Madani, Gary and I threw on our least sinking clothes and turned up at the house.
Aicha lives with her older brother, Lassan, who is 22; her sister Selkha, 17; and younger brother, Ibrahim, just 10. Both of their parents are dead, their father for some years now and their mother just three years ago. Lassan works in odd jobs around the town, and the girls run the house; there is a constant stream of family and visitors through the door, and they receive a lot of love and support from the community.
Hard times notwithstanding, Lassan welcomed us with an extraordinary feast - the girls had slogged like trojans all afternoon, and the plates arrived in a steady succession - harira, m'semen, crepes, bread, dates, biscuits, eggs...if I could cook half as well as those two girls I could open a restaurant and be flat out every day. A berber family, their hospitality lived up to everything written about the extraordinary generosity of those people, who live by the adage: "feed your guests even though you may be starving."
We returned the following day for the Eid fete that marks the end of Ramadan. The girls and their friends had a marvellous time making me up, putting new henna on my hands and feet, and dressing me in a new melekhva (scarves) which they insisted I keep. Whilst Gary went out on the town with the boys, I went from house to house with the girls, meeting all the families and drinking endless cups of tea, in vain protesting that I did not need the steady succession of presents thrust at me. It really was pointless to argue; we finished the day with dates, oil, sugar, several new melekhvas, jewellery, a new pot, and countless other tokens from the wonderful people in the village. At the home of Aicha's aunt - a true berber dwelling, all clay and straw and housing three seperate families in a compound - I was undressed and dressed again, my braid undone with much clucking of teeth and shaking of heads, and redone in an elaborate four piece braid and chignon, interspersed with great smacking kisses. My Arabic remains pretty atrocious, but we managed to get by okay for the day, which ended up back at the house over chicken tajine - extremely Fresh chicken, as it was slaughtered just as we entered.
Madani and Gary ended the day in fine form, imbibing copious amounts of locally brewed date whiskey (think gasoline, and you've pretty much got an idea of the taste) and it was a somewhat dilapidated crew who packed up the camels at daybreak the following day and stumbled out of town. I cannot properly express the unbelievable warmth, generosity, and true nobility of spirit of Lassan and his family; for four kids who live a tough road, there is enough love, kindness and humour in that house to melt the arctic circle. And we think Madani may have found his future wife - it was a very downcast chap who bid goodbye to Selkha. Well, let's face it, she is infintely more attractive than four stinking camels, one donkey, and three rather suspect humans.
Ali Baba is the donkey M'Barak adopted en-route. He says he plans to ride it back from Dakhla, and, knowing M'Barak, he is entirely serious. We get great mileage out of his relationship with the donkey - after all, three months in the Sahara without his wife is a long time to be alone...
Actually, M'Barak provides an almost constant source of entertainment, sometimes deliberately, and others just by his existence. We learned early on that it is a dangerous thing to allow him anywhere near any of our equipment; he has the ingrained nomad's habit of believing that nothing is perfect when it is originally manufactured, and that all things are improved with a good bit of adapting, hammering, and tampering. And thus our screwdriver became a spike, the radio is stuck permanently "on", and my once factory edge knife has the ragged finish induced by hours of "proper" sharpening with stones. Fabulous at making something out of nothing, or repairing broken things, he is an absolute disaster around anything that actually works. Which may, of course, explain why he is so good at fixing things.
But he remains unfailingly good humoured, and incredibly patient with our efforts to learn the language and customs (of which, believe me, there are thousands, which differ depending on whether you are with Saharawi, Berber, or people of another origin).
The walking has been mainly hammada, although it was broken up by a long march across this dried up lake; great underfoot, but a little short on shade. That evening though, after we made camp and collapsed into the contented heap induced by Madani's magical tajine, this cloud appeared on the horizon. Corny as it sounds, it seemed to me like a great bird of freedom soaring far above us, and as I looked at the first star glimmering in the desert night and smelt the clean, dry air, I couldn't help but feel incredibly lucky to be living this wonderful, wild adventure, and wished it need never end.
Of course, I woke the following morning to the flies buzzing about my head, and the foul stench of Chamelette, the most SCHTINKING of the four camels, and rethought somewhat...
Our four camels have been christened Zarwel, Mimi, Habil, and Chamelette. Zarwel is the calm plodder of the crew, carrying the heaviest loads without so much of a murmur of complaint; Mimi is just stupid, and will only plod along if attached to one of the others; "Habil" means crazy in Arabic, and we are convinced this camel smokes copious amounts of kif at night when we are all in bed, as he has not a brain in his head and sleeps at every possible opportunity; and then there is the testosterone driven mania of the aforementioned stinking Chamelette, who is rather like an adolescent boy on a promise, all raging ego and jealous of his position as leader. He is so christened because some American tourists asked us what a baby camel is called, to which an Arabic friend of ours replied, with a dead straight face, "chamelette". They actually believed him, which was even funnier, so we christened the baby of the crew in honour of the moment.
Hopefully we will make it to Guelmim in the next two weeks and I can post some photos of the beautiful people of Foulm el Hissin. But just now, I have a serious date with the Hammam, where I plan to scrub and wallow for at least an hour...